Category: Passion week

Figures in a darkened landscape

By , 21 March 2008 9:32 pm

It’s been a busy week. I have been desperately trying to finish off all the critical teaching before the Easter break and doing various other things too. I also wrote – in some haste – my monthly blog for Speculative Faith; called Clarke’s Blind Spot it addressed the late (and genuinely lamented by me) death of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The blind spot, I said, was his failure to recognize the propensity of the human race to sin. In the course of writing the blog the following sentence came to me. “To make a Holy Week link, there is far more of the range and diversity of human sin in the few chapters of the passion story (think Caiaphas, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the crowd, the unrepentant thief, the callous soldiers) than there is in the hundred plus books that Clarke wrote.”

Thinking about this subsequently I have come to the conclusion that this is actually a very remarkable feature of the passion narratives. It is not just that here one or two people do things that are disastrously and tragically evil. It is that, with the exception of Jesus, almost everybody does evil but in different ways and from different motives. I feel I could write a book of seven chapters on the different but wrong (albeit to varying degrees) reactions of the protagonists. Let me then, as part of an Easter contribution, briefly sketch some of them here.

  • To me, Caiaphas represents religion gone wrong. He is a man who is so zealous for the externals of a faith that he is prepared to rip out its moral core. If you don’t take this in the wrong way, I can honestly say as an elder in Baptist Church I now have a much greater understanding of Caiaphas’ decisions. The system must survive…
  • About the motives of Judas much has been written and much of that is contradictory. I almost wonder whether his real motivation is deliberately left blank lest we pat ourselves on the back and say that we have avoided his sin. Whatever the precise trigger for his betrayal I think we can be fairly confident about the soil in which the betrayal sprouted; he was disaffected and disappointed and any spiritual affection he had for Jesus had clearly grown cold.
  • Peter’s near fatal over-confidence is surely that of a man who sees courage and dedication in himself but fails to recognise that it is only a thin veneer over a great hole.
  • In Pilate, I sense a weariness with things that ultimately dulls any scruples. He is out of his depth and in survival mode. I see him going back to the villa and smashing a bitter fist down on the table in sheer frustration at the way things have frustrated him.
  • Time does not allow me to treat the jaded, bitter crowd, the brutally efficient soldiery and the snarling unrepentant thief. But I – and you – recognise them.

Three thoughts:

  1. If the gospels are the human invention that some claim, then to have this menagerie of human evil so briefly yet finely drawn is one of the wonders of ancient writing.
  2. The failings here are all too scarily human. Let us pray, reader, that neither you nor I ever see them in the mirror.
  3. In the almost total moral gloom of the crucifixion there are small flickering lights, notably the women and John, but all around the scene is darkness. The state of the human heart portrayed here serves not just to point up the nature of mankind but to highlight the Jesus who is at the centre of it all. Nowhere in the Gospels does the Light of the World shine more brightly than when the darkness in deepest.

Unholy alliances

By , 14 March 2008 6:25 pm

Last weekend Alison and I went to see There Must be Blood, the Oscar-winning film dominated by Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a performance of such conviction that his character Daniel Plainview seems more real than some living people I know. I enjoyed it, although it’s somewhat depressing, and rather long. In being centred on California and focused on the very unhealthy interaction of oil with a bizarre charismatism it is rather too American for most Brits. But it made for interesting viewing and there is some interesting religious symbolism.

I mentioned a vaguely parallel instance in my classes a few weeks ago. To understand it, you need to be aware that any traveller in Britain knows that he or she is in Wales when they see place names such as Llandovery, Llandudno and Llanelli. A llan was a clearing in the woods and was traditionally named after a saint or holy person; so we get Llansteffan after St Stephen or Llandeilo after St Teilo. Now the history of the modern Middle East is often dated to the moment when, almost exactly a hundred years ago, William Knox D’Arcy found oil at Masjid-i-Sulaiman in Iran. He subsequently became the founder of what is now British Petroleum and achieved a dubious immortality near Swansea when in the 1920s BP was setting up a new refinery in the area; casting about for a name they created Llandarcy. The oil finder was thus beatified.

Now let me indulge in a segue to bring us into Passion week. One very much overlooked aspect of the whole sorry business of the last week is the nature of the opposition to Jesus. The Jewish writer Josephus helps by claiming that, at one Passover alone, the number of animal sacrifices offered at the Temple was 256,500. Let us assume that here, as elsewhere, he exaggerates and that in Jesus day the figure was a mere hundred thousand lambs. Using modern day values, let’s say each sacrifice cost $100 or £50. So it is quite probable that over three or four days transactions of the equivalent of many millions of dollars were conducted in Jerusalem. My feeling (and remember I have lived in this part of the world) is that this was a very ‘nice little earner’ for all concerned. During the Lebanese civil war the bitterest of enemies collaborated when it came to hashish growing and transportation; I am pretty certain the same applied here. There would have been a cut for the Roman leadership, a cut for the military and very healthy backhanders for priests and administrators. Is it any wonder when Jesus of Nazareth threatened to undermine the entire Temple system that the bitterest of enemies collaborated to destroy him? Money can bring out the worst in people; religious enthusiasm can do the same. But marry the two together and you have something spectacularly appalling.

Perhaps we should pray that God should keep us and our churches poor.

Have a good week,

Chris

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